Ladakh is a high altitude valley tucked between Kunlun ranges on east, Karakoram ranges on north and west and the Himalayas on south, with an average altitude of 3657 metres.An enquiry into the construction of Ladakh helps in understanding the physical determinants of the prevalent house form. Traditional local materials in Ladakh are not very varied.
Traditional houses in Ladakh are built using stones, timbers and mud in various forms, such as sun-dried mud bricks and rammed earth for plastering floors and roofs. To make the buildings suited to the local climate, they are well-insulated with mud and straw, and the most important room always faces south for sunshine. Modern architecture recognizes this technique of passive solar energy.The façades usually have an impressive layout and the roof parapet, the doors and the windows have detailed wood-carved decorations
Earth as a building material
The traditional construction in Leh, Ladakh extensively uses earth. It is used in walls, foundations, roof, as binding material, and as plaster. It is abundantly available everywhere and thus is cheap. It works exceptionally well in the harsh cold climate as it acts as a good insulator as well as thermal mass.
Often dug out from the site, and other soils are added from the proximity to get the desired mix. Stone is used as a complimenting material to earth, which brings contrast, and identity to the volume.A ring beam, or seismic band, helps tie the walls [often made of mud or stone]. It is one of the essential components of earthquake resistance for load-bearing construction. It prevents the distortion or displacement of walls in the event of an earthquake. Timber lacing provides added tensile strength to the walls to prevent the development of vertical cracks.
Earth walls are structural members as well as insulation. Soil is selected which has high moisture and clay content. Soil with low clay content or in other words sandy can be stabilized using cement or chemical stabilizers but these options were not available earlier. Hay, animal hair or clay (markalag) is added to the mixture to act as binding materials.
Soil with stone content should be avoided. Earth and water are mixed to get a paste which is molded into a brick and then sundried. This mixture should be perfectly proportioned and require experienced labour. After sun-drying for 10-15 days, the bricks are cured for 3-5 days and then layed using mud mortar. Old mud bricks are reusable and can be broken and mixed with water to obtain the paste. Following are the types of walls:
2. Sundried mud bricks (pakbu)
3. Rammed earth. These materials can also be used in combinations with each other.
There are several innovative building techniques being used in modern construction in and around Leh, for example, Insulation through pashmina wool, a waste by product generated at the pashmina mill which is cheap and effective to trap air bubbles. Trombe wall combined with double glazing which increase solar heat gain and also works as insulation. Plastic wire mesh which is laid horizontally after every two feets in a rammed earth wall to strengthen it and give it a longer life (steel mesh is not used because of its high conductivity).
Hollow concrete blocks which are not sustainable but much lighter than the typically used concrete block, and the air inside the block provides insulation. The vernacular methodologies of construction are adapted according to the climate and the topology but still have some ﬂaws because of which people make a deliberate choice of switching to modern materials. Research needs to be done on techniques using these modern materials to make the architecture more energy eﬃcient and environment-friendly.
Perhaps the most important decorative element in a Ladakhi building is a Shinsak which is the elaborate layered woodwork seen above the lintels. In earlier times, shinsak was a symbol to show a family’s social status as wood was rare and expensive and the wealthier could aﬀord to build more elaborate and decorative shinsak. The whole ﬁxture is pre-fabricated and put up over the lintel and then covered with a coping of mud and covered with yamang stone. The shinsak also has an important structural function. Since the walls are thicker than the lintel, the load needs to be gradually reduced from a wider cross-section to a thinner one.
Ladakh is also known for its diverse fabrics which differ tremendously from the fabric available in the rest of the country. Nearly every fabric item in Ladakh is woven—from clothing to shoes, home textiles and even accessories for horses. The main woollen textile is Nambu (snambu), which is used largely for clothing.
There are plenty of others too spuruks is a 10cm thick, warm, woollen fabric with a brush-like texture on one side; chhali is woven with yak hair (not wool) and used as a covering for blankets and rugs. Phugshar and tsugtul are strong, waterproof textiles that also make blankets and coverings, while tsuggdan is the material used for carpets. Tagal and lugal help make saddle bags, and magdan is a saddle rug placed on the horse. Phirgyis is a strong bag for carrying grains, which also has an interesting design. Lastly, raybo is yak hair woven into fabric that nomadic people use to make their houses and tents.